Somali Bantu Community

Liaisons:  Association of Africans Living in Vermont
Interpreted in:  Maay Maay, Somali
The following summarized comments are the opinions and observations of Somali Bantu community members in the Summer of 2020.

Environment (Air/Water/Waste/Outdoor Access)

  • Very limited conversation regarding environmental health in this community.
  • Concern about cigarette smokers in apartment complexes effects on children’s health.
  • Neighbors calling the cops on children playing in the neighborhood limits children’s access to and safety in outdoors.  One participant described how her neighbors would record her children playing outside, and telling them “they don’t belong here and to go back where they came from.”

**Suggestions:  Translate educational documents on environmental health and climate change 

Economy (Jobs/Safety/Education)

  • Unemployment benefits were accessed by some but was inaccessible for many due to language access barriers and income restrictions. 
  • Existing contracts were threatened to be ended if workers filed for employment. 
  • Several people had to quit their jobs and apply for unemployment because of safety concerns at work: 

“I actually decided to quit because it wasn’t safe. It was a really hard couple months to figure out the rent and food and everything else. If things at work had been a safe environment that would have been a different situation.”

  • Those who remained working were not receiving the $600 bonus available to those on unemployment:

“It wasn’t really fair because they are actually putting their lives at risk in order to maintain society while everybody is just collecting their checks. I wish everybody received the same kind of treatment.”

  • Participant reported being bullied at work and dealing with a very unwelcoming environment. She said because she doesn’t speak English, they have been antagonizing her or starting an argument with her and then running to a supervisor to complain.
  • Many parents do not read or write English, so they are not able to assist children with online learning. Sometimes there is shame around being unable to read or write which can make people less likely to seek out assistance. 
  • Information on safety in schools was not being transferred to parents who do not speak English:

“How are we supposed to know the kids are safe at school? The interpreters are using English words and mixing English with Maay maay and not transferring the right information.”

  • Childcare financial assistance was appreciated, however, many teenagers had to babysit and teach younger siblings while also balancing their own work:

“There were a lot of kids watching kids, I wish they had done better with that.”

  • High school students needed more support in preparing college applications:

“Somali Bantu kids already have a difficult time just going through the college application process and because they have home online learning, it’s going to make it even more difficult. So if a student of color or someone from the Somali Bantu community has difficulties with the college application process, most likely it’s through the advisors, most likely it’s limited because they have contact with people and school officials, I don’t understand how they are going to be able to do that.”

Education + Language Access

  • Lack of language access disrupts family structure:

“That’s my biggest concern, it’s just what will happen to those kids? And most of the parents, they don’t really speak English, they don’t really read, so it’s like…what will the parents do? And how will the kids be able to succeed?”

“If we could get more online support with the all the different languages so that the kids that can’t get the support for whatever so that they even could explain it to the parents, and then the parents could probably help their kids with their homework if that’s possible.” 

  • Lack of language access limits access to information.
  • Misinformation regarding food program details led to confusion, forcing people to pay back money received.
  • Inadequate language access services increases fear, misinformation, and distrust:

“How are we supposed to know the kids are safe at school? The interpreters are using English words and mixing English with Maay Maay and not transferring the right information.”

“With this whole pandemic it’s like how will that happen if they don’t have access to the things that they need? Our parents want a better future for us and that’s why they moved over here and put us in a good situation and when the resources are not available it becomes difficult.” 

**Suggestions: More flexibility in online course structures to be understanding of parents (including parents who are in school), less homework, flexible timing, more resources in their language so parents can assist

Food & Transportation

“The mask is your dollar bill.”

  • Bus transportation was free, however, families were diagnosed with Covid and halted utilizing the bus “to keep our family and friends out of danger.”  There was concern over safe transportation options in the winter months.
  • Many participants reported issues with parking in the North End of Burlington around apartment complexes, including having their cars towed and confiscated by the state. They cannot have visitors park nearby, do not have room for more than one car per household, and cannot even park outside the complex temporarily to unload groceries without threat of fines or being towed.  One participant had their car towed and couldn’t afford the $500 fine. One week later, the fine was up to $1000 to get their car back.  They had to forfeit their car to the state over this parking issue, and as a result, are down to one car for their family.

“Food has been such a huge issue.” 

  • Being able to budget for food was a severe problem felt by many.  
  • Participants were grateful for the free lunch options provided in the parks throughout the pandemic, but they felt that the children were not satisfied with the cold lunches provided.  They would have preferred rice dishes, pastas, or traditional food:

“There’s a lot of kids who go to school and are using the school meals to survive and when the whole thing went down a lot of kids got sent home and they didn’t have a source of food.”

  • Extra food stamp benefits were the most helpful form of support, so people could shop for food they wanted to cook.  
  • Often the pre-packaged food boxes and the choices at the food shelf contained food that was not consumed for religious and cultural reasons, which created a lot of waste.  
  • Food cards or coupons would have been more useful so they could shop for themselves.  
  • Those who did receive a temporary food card and did not use it all within a certain time period were forced to forfeit their benefits, a caveat which was not explained to them ahead of time. 
  • Many participants reported some amount of anxiety over grocery shopping. One participant who tested positive accessed a program from the Department of Health which sent a shopper to the stores for them for a few weeks so they didn’t have to leave the house and put any other families and friends in danger.

**Suggestions:  Make food accessible during emergencies by investing in food delivery systems and neighborhood shoppers.  Provide hot meals whenever possible. Increase food stamp benefits and lower income limits during disasters.


  • Critical health information transfers across generations. Many were untrusting of Covid-19 tests, thought they would be injected with something:  “I went and got tested and kind of like told my parents how the procedure goes. That you’re not really getting infected with anything bad. They’ve been kind of like relaxing a little bit, but I’m not sure about other parents.”
  • Difficulty and uncertainty in making a doctor’s appointment or getting a hold of providers, many were waiting to go to the doctor/ER out of fear
  • Many reported relying on Facebook for information on the virus, symptoms, and testing. 
  • Unaffordable healthcare:  Several reported losing Medicaid and paying for healthcare out of pocket, fearful that an unpaid medical bill will ruin credit, so they avoid going to the doctor, getting bloodwork done, Covid tests were not free at first
  • Many were not aware of the virus or did not take it seriously until their friends and family were being diagnosed. Timely health information in people’s languages can save lives.
  • Father diagnosed with Covid, participant was just returning from the hospital, running low on sleep: 

**Suggestions:  Incentivize participation for overburdened communities, in an effort to respect people’s personal expertise and allow them to make time for this type of informational/community meeting.

Health+Language Access

  • Families, including young children, are often used as translators for their parents in healthcare settings, which can alter family dynamics drastically:

“They don’t really speak on it in our language, like our parents need a translator, we would translate for them, but some words are very hard to translate in our language, you know? So, I wish they had translators and other people to let them know what’s going on and describe it in a way where they can understand it.”

“I wish they would have a program where they could broadcast it in every language so everyone understands what’s going on, that would just make the situation easier.”

+Mental Health

“Our father is more worried about us than Covid-19.  We are really close family so it’s just hard to separate us”

  • Parents were concerned about taking their children to the ER. 
  • Children were concerned about their parents health when they would come to their apartments to check in on them.
  • Posters in the hallways of apartment buildings describing symptoms of Covid-19 were reported to be helpful for peace of mind.

Suggestion: Timely access to health information including access to testing and resources contributes to mental health and wellbeing.

Housing & Energy

  • Biggest risk perceived was how to pay the rent.  The need was in emergency rental assistance.
  • Large families share close quarters, making self-quarantining very challenging. Some elders did not understand the severity of the pandemic at first. One participant described having housing that is too small, her back hurts due to her living/sleeping situation
  • Safety:  Several participants shared stories of their neighbors reporting their children to the police for noise complaints.  They were very concerned with safety in the neighborhood because of how their neighbors treated their children.  The children are also afraid, some of them are the only people of color in their apartment complex and feel very unwelcome.  
  • Tenant Rights & Landowner Responsibility:  Several reported being billed for maintenance in their apartment on top of rent. Issues reported to the housing authority were not responded to in a  timely manner.  Housing authority ordered tow truck to remove their cars. 
  • Housing + Health: Paint is chipping, problems with heat, rust in the heaters, & losing power in storms, housing authority is unresponsive, and charges for maintenance.

Emergency Communications & Equal Access

“I feel like the response time for this COVID was not okay, they should have responded sooner.”

  • Critical health information is important in order to care for most vulnerable populations – kids and elderly:  

“A lot of the younger kids or the younger generation, they were out of school and so they were spending a lot of time in the parks and around in the community and they would have a lot of contact with each other. And it was difficult to try to keep everybody away from each other because there are a lot of older generation individuals at the homes that don’t, they don’t necessarily know that they can potentially be in danger of having the virus and it affects their wellbeing.”

  • Internet is not always a reliable form of communication during disasters:  

“That’s the thing with technology, it’s not always effective as it would be with like real gatherings, with real humans, you know? The whole virtual world is complicated because you can lose service right away and miss out on a lot and with weak internet you won’t be able to participate.”

  • During the pandemic it was difficult to get a hold of a provider to make an appointment, had to leave voicemails.
  • The pandemic created even more challenges for refugee communities to obtain resources:

“They want a better future for us and that’s why they moved over here and put us in a good situation and when the resources are not available it becomes difficult.”

  • Language Access is a major barrier to equal access:  

“I wish they would have a program where they could broadcast it in every language so everyone understands what’s going on, that would just make the situation easier.”

  • Misinformation was rampant throughout the pandemic, negatively affecting trust: 

“You don’t know who to trust anymore because a lot of people got misinformation and it’s misleading.” “I know some parents were afraid to go get tested because they thought they might be getting injected with something else and that’s why they wouldn’t go to get tested because that’s what they thought was happening and that kind of thing made it difficult because even though they are getting the symptoms they are like ‘I’m just going to stay home and do like homemade medicine, drink that and I should be getting better within two days’ or whatnot.”

  • Facebook “has a lot of important information” and is used to share health info, how to know if someone has the virus, how to get tested.
  • Need Facebook & Whatsapp channels in multiple languages: 

“I mean for me, I’m always on Facebook. So it’s always helpful to learn something new, with the parents, they are always on WhatsApp. And nobody really updates stuff on WhatsApp besides people who speak their language. It would help if they had a program where they could train the parents and let them know what’s happening in advance.” 

  • Need Translated government Facebook page for important information including how to detect when someone may have the virus, vaccinations, and all things relating to the pandemic:  

“It is a very helpful thing because I don’t really live in a community, I live in Winooski, downtown. There’s really not much information out here because all the restaurants closed, and you really don’t see anything out here, so I use Facebook as a resource of receiving information and gathering”

  • Posters in the hallways of apartment buildings explaining symptoms of covid were helpful to know when you should get tested.
  • Community Conversations are effective methods of communication: 

“Thanks for calling us to this conversation and willing to hear our concerns. [I] would like to have more conversations like this and [I] would really appreciate help if you can, but if you can’t that’s fine.”

  • Community connections and relationships were key to accessing resources:

“My mom has a lot of connections with a lot of family groups, like non-profits, so she talked to them and they helped out and we appreciate them.”

**Suggestions:  Actively share information on resources with community liaisons about resources such as grant programs, contract opportunities, testing, as well as “knowledge”, data, and critical public information i.e. water data, stormwater overflow events, climate change information.  Create translated Government channels of communication on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Summary compiled by:   
Jennifer Byrne, Fellow
Environmental Justice Clinic
Vermont Law School

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